Interview: Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is among the last of a dying breed: the war correspondent that has spent his life with society’s outcasts and the faceless victims of conflcit. I ask how he came into journalism and what he thinks are the crucial attributes for a journalist. “I originally came to journalism through the priesthood actually. I was studying at Harvard Divinity school, originally intending to become a minister when I met a fantastic guy named Robert Cox. Robert had been editor of the Buenos Aires Herald during the dirty war in the late 70’s. He was a very brave man. The government at the time’s way of disposing of its enemies was ‘disappearing them’; they’d simply vanish into the night, usually never to be seen again. Bob used to print the names of those who had been disappeared the previous day above the fold in his newspaper.

“Eventually, he himself was disappeared, although his life was saved by the intervention of the British and American governments. He really opened my eyes to the possibility of journalism, and what journalism can do.”

He emphasises a balanced approach. “One of the most important things you can do as a journalist is have a strict sense of objectivity and wish to stick to the truth. Orwell is the absolute epitome of this aspect of our profession, particularly in books such as Homage to Catalonia. I’ll illustrate with an example from my own career. When I covered the war in Kosovo, I spent the vast majority of my time covering the atrocities of the Serbian security forces, who, if they hadn’t been stopped by a NATO intervention, would have committed murder, massacre and rape on a huge scale. But when they withdrew, their role was replaced by that of Albanian thugs who instead starting beating and murdering elderly Serb couples who had nothing whatsoever to do with Milosevic and his crimes.

“But this is also a very dangerous type of journalism to be involved in. You might have seen that at the start of the film The Hurt Locker, they used a quote from me about war being a drug. You find so many journalists who find that nothing in life is as exciting as covering wars; I felt this way myself. So many of them pay for this addiction with their lives.” We turn to his opinions of the most powerful and prestigious of journalistic institutions of our time, The New York Times, which he left in 2003 over their refusal to countenance his opposition to the Iraq War.

The New York Times is in a very strange position vis-à-vis its relationship to power. On the one hand, it is an elitist paper, and so much of its publishing power comes from its intimate access to politicians and those in positions of power. So it can’t go around openly opposing the agenda of those who give it the access it craves. “It attracts careerists who are intoxicated by power and influence; I was not a particularly good careerist. But this does not make it a propaganda outlet. So you’ll see it try and square the circle in strange ways. With the Wikileaks cables for instance, it couldn’t not take such a huge story without looking ridiculous, but it had to keep it at arm’s length. They were at the forefront for instance, of smearing the character of Julian Assange and his organisation.”

I push him about his support of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, who Hedges considers a friend. I ask him, why, since the Manning leaks, Wikileaks has gone so quiet. “I was with Julian yesterday, I spent about two and a half hours with him. To be honest, his confinement is getting harder, and everything he does is watched. You have to understand that one of the reasons Wikileaks cannot act like it used to is that it suffered such as huge material and propaganda attack. Its funding was severed, its character publicly smeared, also by the organisations that benefited from it, and Assange is now under near total surveillance. It’s kind of an open secret – I think it’s even in the Guardian’s book that Snowden originally wanted to go to Julian with the NSA documents, but the surveillance that Julian is under could have jeopardised the whole operation of publishing them.”

To end the interview, I ask him what the key to doing a successful interview might be. “I’ve done a lot of interesting interviews, but the ones with people in power often happen to be the most boring. I’ve spoken with Gaddafi and Mubarak, but you’d often get more out of talking to activists on the ground. “You want people to speak about what they know. And it takes a long time to do a good interview. Often, in the first half hour of the interview, you’ve got almost nothing. For me, it’s always about being completely honest, completely trustworthy. I think people sense it. That and being informed. My current book is an exploration of the effects of unrestrained rapacious capitalism on the poorest in America.

“Part of the reason it took me and my colleague Joel so long to do this book is because we didn’t walk into the coal fields, the produce fields of Florida until we did tremendous amounts of research. We knew what it is we were asking, we knew the history, we knew the culture. I was always surprised as a foreign correspondent how many people really didn’t know, like in the Balkans, the history of the Balkans.

“That’s really key, or the history of the Middle East. Having that historical context, that cultural context, and finally the linguistic ability as a correspondent, is key.”